Spotlight on Forms: What is a Sonnet?


The sonnet was created in the 13th century by an Italian man named Giacomo da Lentini, but made famous by Shakespeare, who put his own touch on the “Shakespearean” sonnet during the 16th century.

Our most recent spotlight form, the villanelle, originated in France in the 17th century.  This week we will take a look at an even older form of poetry: the sonnet. The sonnet was created in the 13th century by an Italian man named Giacomo da Lentini,  but made famous by Shakespeare, who put his own touch on the “Shakespearean”  sonnet during the 16th century. The sonnet is composed of fourteen lines, and follows a strict rhyme scheme and specific structure. Most sonnets traditionally deal with the subject of love. Read on to find out more and to see a few famous examples!

What are the Other Variations of Sonnets?

Giacomo de Lentini is credited with creating them, and Shakespeare made them popular, but what other famous “sonneteers” are there? Dante, famous for The Divine Comedy, utilized Petrarchan type sonnets, which slightly alter the original Italian rhyme scheme crafted by Giacomo de Lentini, in some of his works. Some of the first poets to write sonnets in English chose to use this Italian form as well, including  John Milton, Thomas Gray, William Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. However,  both the original Italian Petrarchan sonnets and the later Shakespearean sonnets both utilize iambic pentameter, referring to the rhythm of the lines of poetry and how each syllable should be stressed when read.

Examples of Famous Sonnets

Check out Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet, “Sonnet 18”:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.


And here is an example of one of William Wordsworth’s sonnets in Petrarchan form, “My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold”:

My heart leaps up when I behold

   A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

   Or let me die!

The Child is father of the Man;

I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety.


Take a stab at writing your own sonnet about someone you love. If you like what you write, consider submitting it to our poetry contest and show your work to the world!

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